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Who’s In Charge? Coordinating Puget Sound Transportation

Originally published at The Seattle Times

WHO’S in charge? That’s the question citizens ask most often in focus groups and front-porch panels on transportation.

Two bills in Olympia right now address just that question. Senate Transportation Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen and House Transportation Chairman Ed Murray have both proposed bills that would establish study commissions to bring specific proposals back to the 2007 Legislature to consolidate Puget Sound’s transportation governance.

The importance of a strong regional force in transportation was emphasized by the December 2000 report of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation. That report recommended that the Legislature “provide regions with the ability to plan, select, fund and implement … projects identified to meet the region’s transportation and land-use goals … With the principle of no new bureaucracy, however, the intention is to simplify and minimize structural redundancy rather than add new layers of government.”

Since then, the Legislature has created two new regional authorities in Puget Sound: the Regional Transportation Investment District (RTID, for highway projects in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties) and the Seattle Monorail Authority. Up until the monorail’s collapse, they competed with each other for funding sources — as well as with Sound Transit for existing sources. Neither Sound Transit, nor the RTID, nor the Puget Sound Regional Council has been given the authority to rationalize, prioritize and integrate all the proposed transportation projects — or their funding burden on the taxpayer.

Resolving this Puget Sound transportation governance dilemma is especially important now that the Legislature has provided both the 2003 nickel and 2005 transportation-partnership funding packages. Those funding packages provided a lot of money for critical statewide and Puget Sound projects. However, the Legislature agreed with the blue-ribbon commission that the Puget Sound region would also need its own resources. In order to finish what the Legislature has started, the region will need to provide further regional funding.

However, as the monorail debacle made clear, separate, independent bodies acting in isolation from one another is a recipe for disaster. Before the monorail’s collapse this past fall, we were facing the prospect of three possible ballot measures for transportation: one to salvage the monorail, one to approve RTID roadway proposals, and one for a second-phase Sound Transit proposal.

The Haugen and Murray bills both call for an evaluation of transportation authorities in Puget Sound and ask for a governance proposal that would:

  • • Consolidate governance among regional agencies;
  • • Improve coordination in planning;
  • • Improve investment strategies;
  • • Coordinate transportation planning with land-use policies;
  • • Enhance efficiency and coordination;
  • • Adjust boundaries for agencies;
  • • Improve coordination between regional investments and federal and state funds.

The Haugen bill calls specifically for a single point of accountability for transportation and funding. Adding to this emphasis on funding, the Murray bill requires development of a comprehensive, integrated transportation-finance plan as well as a governance proposal.

Fortunately, work done by the Puget Sound Regional Council, Sound Transit and RTID has laid the groundwork for an integrated transportation-investment plan. The Puget Sound Regional Council’s “Destination 2030” plan adopted a framework for multimodal transportation investment through 2030.

However, the PSRC has little funding authority with which to act. Both Sound Transit and RTID have been developing new transit and roadway plans, and — after working mostly independently in the past — have shown recent signs of closer planning collaboration. But alone or together, it is not their assignment to create a comprehensive plan.

This cooperation is an excellent sign for the region’s future. But we citizens should not have to rely on voluntary cooperation by competing boards to decide our transportation future. We need a single point of regional accountability to create a comprehensive, integrated transportation plan and financing proposal. Our legislators have made a positive start with their introduced legislation. We need to ask them to finish their work. We need to know who’s in charge!

Slade Gorton is a former U.S. senator and former Washington state attorney general.

Hon. Sen. Slade Gorton

Board of Directors, Discovery Institute
Slade Gorton is of counsel to Preston Gates & Ellis LLP. He recently served as a Commissioner on the National Commission on Terrorists Attacks Upon the United States from 2002-2004. Before his appointment to the 9-11 Commission, Slade spent 18 years representing Washington State in the United States Senate. Gorton's years in the Senate saw him appointed to powerful committee posts including Appropriations, Budget, Commerce, Science and Transportation, and Energy and Natural Resources. Slade served as the Chairman of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee (1995-2001), the Commerce Subcommittees on Consumer Affairs (1995-99), and Aviation (1999-2000). He was a member of the Republican leadership as counsel to the Majority Leader (1996-2000).